The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night looking to keep an improbably-great late-season road trip pristine at 5-0. Unfortunately, that wasn’t destined to be. Portland came out of the gate flat-footed and never really recovered. Throughout the game, their defense looked closer to pre-road-trip than perfection. Scoring by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum kept them in it for three quarters. Every time the Blazers got down, their starting guards would engineer a flurry to bring them back. But in the end, they couldn’t overcome 20-41 three-point shooting from Atlanta, falling 123-114
With the loss, the Blazers drop to 36-29 in the ultra-tight Western Conference playoffs race.
Lillard scored 33 to lead the Blazers, shooting 11-19 from the field and 6-9 from the arc. McCollum added 20. Jusuf Nurkic, a staple during this great road swing, had an off night, scoring just 4 points with 9 rebounds with 3 turnovers in 23 minutes of play.
This game started slower than any of the others on this road trip. The Blazers went to Jusuf Nurkic once again at the outset, but not deep enough and not quickly enough. Atlanta smothered Nurk, forcing turnovers and gumming up Portland’s offense into tortured iso looks. After a couple minutes, in true Blazers fashion, Portland said, “Screw it” and just worked the ball around for threes. Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Damian Lillard all hit. That freed up the offense just fine. Suddenly CJ McCollum found himself open. He made the Hawks pay with layups and jumpers. But on the other end, Portland still looked slow, especially at the big positions, particularly covering the arc. Atlanta hit as many threes as the Blazers did and the scoreboard stayed knotted through the first six minutes.
Enes Kanter checked in at the midpoint of the period. Instead of adding life, he pretty much took away any pretense the Blazers had to defending inside. Since they already weren’t pretending that hard, it got a little ugly. John Collins brought enormous pressure in the lane; Bogdan Bodganovic hit a trio of threes. The Blazers had no answer for either.
They found one as Lillard took over the game on the other end, breaking down the Hawks off the dribble, then whipping the ball to open teammates. Carmelo Anthony hit a couple threes this way. It was enough. Dame willed his team to stay into the game despite their garbage-like defense. Atlanta led 32-31 after one.
With 11:09 left in the second quarter, Carmelo Anthony became the 10th leading scorer in NBA history, hitting a three-pointer (on which he was fouled). He edged out Elvin Hayes and now sets his sights on Moses Malone, whom he has a real chance of passing before the season is over. Unfortunately for the Blazers, nobody but ‘Melo could score. Other than Anthony’s strikes, they missed every shot they attempted for the first four minutes of the second. Atlanta wasn’t that much better. The scoring ran like frozen molasses until McCollum and Bogdanovic traded buckets and set the flow loose again. The Blazers seemed congenitally unable to cover the three-point arc, but once again guard scoring (this time from McCollum) saved them. Lillard reprised his “draw the defense and dish” attack. He even scored a couple times in the lane, drawing free throws in the process. Aggression made up for a host of defensive sins. The Hawks led 68-62 at the half. Bogdanovic had 7 made threes at intermission.
If the Blazers came out in the second half looking to make a statement, that statement was, “Here! Please score!” Collins and Trae Young hit threes. Young also scored inside against lackadaisical “D”. Atlanta’s lead swelled to 12 before you could say, “Ugh!” As usual, Lillard brought them back. Drives and threes cut the lead to 4 before the period reached its midway point. From there, he and McCollum matched the Hawks score for score. And there was plenty of scoring. Portland hit a bracing 7 threes in the period. So did Atlanta. But as the period closed, Portland’s bad defense proved more consistent than their good offense. The Hawks led 102-95 after three.
Anfernee Simons started the fourth period, but instead of streaming in a torrent of threes, he found himself overmatched against taller players and got scored on repeatedly. It was exactly the wrong message to send, trying to recover against a deficit. As they had all night, the Hawks kept raining threes. Watching them swish from distance quickly went from laughable to disgusting. When Young ran in a layup off of a turnover with 5:13 remaining, Atlanta led by 20 and the game was over. The subs came in and Harry Giles III got his obligatory sweet scores, but that was it.
Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari each ended up with 7 three-pointers hit.
Stay tuned for extended analysis from Marlow Ferguson, Jr.!
The Blazers conclude this ultra-long road trip against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night at 4:30 PM, Pacific